Viewpoints: Teaching children to read

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Finding the best way to inspire children to become fluent readers has long been debated. The "look and say" approach, where children learnt to memorise words, dominated in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But now the pendulum has swung towards phonics-based teaching, where children decode words by sounds.

The Department for Education says international evidence demonstrates that phonics is the most effective way of teaching early reading, and this year introduced a phonics reading test for six-year-olds. So what is the best way to teach children how to read?

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David Reedy

Not all words in English are phonically regular”

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David Reedy, UK Literacy Association

The teaching of reading should encompass a balance of teaching strategies including a systematic approach to phonics and other word reading strategies, and a significant emphasis on children experiencing a wide range of texts, including moving image and digital - all available to read from the very beginning.

Phonics teaching is an important component of the teaching of reading, but not all words in English are phonically regular (the linguist David Crystal estimates 80% are, but the other 20% contains many of the most common words in English).

Young children need more than phonics to read words accurately. For many very common words in English such as "come", "once", "was", "the", the best method for accuracy is to read them as "sight" words - that is, using the strategy of look and say. In addition, in order to be fully accurate in word reading, we have to use meaning gleaned from the context in many cases, for example "read", "lead", "sow", "close".

David Reedy

  • Secretary of UK Literacy Association
  • Says a wide range of techniques should be used

Attention should be given to reading for purpose and pleasure, and to introduce children to more challenging texts as well as focus on word reading skills. A school should invest significantly in books and adult time to support reading. Teachers should be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about literature suitable for children so they can recommend and inspire their classes as well as individuals.

Motivation to read is a crucial component of a teacher's job. This approach results in deep engagement as well as accuracy in reading, both of which are crucial and lead to high standards. We need to develop both the skill and the will.

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Shelagh Harvey and pupils

The reading test is fundamentally flawed”

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Shelagh Harvey, head teacher

There is no simple way to teach all children to read. Phonics, contextual clues, sounding out, going back to words - all of these are important skills. Phonics is important, but I do think it has been over-exaggerated of late.

We run a very successful phonics reading project for the majority of our children, but we need to find different strategies for a small group of children who struggle with it.

I think the government's reading test is fundamentally flawed. It didn't give us any clues for helping us move forward with our children.

I had two very able readers at the end of Year 1 who failed the test, but who could read a Level 2 book and read fluently. One failed because she refused to read the non-word and the other little girl rushed because she's used to reading, not sounding out words.

Shelagh Harvey

  • Head teacher at Ingatestone Infants School in Essex
  • Supports use of phonics, but wants phonics reading test scrapped

The over-emphasis on phonics and the test may put pressure on some teachers to "teach to the test" at the expense of a wide richer reading experience. A minority of children, for whom phonics is not successful, could be deprived of other reading strategies and have their difficulties exacerbated. It is also known that some children who are good with phonics and able to decode successfully do so at the cost of understanding what they read, known as "barking at text".

The only way we can really measure progress is to let our children read. Here we sit them down with appropriate texts and judge them at the level they are reading at. You have to give children skills and a range of materials. We do a lot of work with parents too, encouraging them to read to and with their children.

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Maureen  McLaughlin

Our goal is to teach students to become engaged readers”

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Prof Maureen McLaughlin, International Reading Association

Reading is a complex process that involves multiple factors including decoding, integrating background experiences, having purposes for reading, and using skills and strategies to construct meaning. For very young readers, the process begins with issues such as the alphabetic principle and concepts of print. The goal of successful reading is comprehension.

There are five pillars of literacy - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. All contribute to reading comprehension. Students need ample opportunity to learn, practise, and use these skills. Researchers report that students' construction of meaning is enhanced when they use a repertoire of reading comprehension strategies, including predicting, self-questioning, visualising, monitoring, summarising, and evaluating.

Students have diverse strengths, needs, opportunities and cultural backgrounds.

Maureen McLaughlin

  • President-elect of International Reading Association

To ensure access and opportunities for all students to become readers and achieve their greatest potential, reading instruction should be differentiated. Differentiated instruction enables us to accommodate the diversity of students' needs. Struggling readers, students with disabilities and dual language learners are examples of students for whom instruction should be differentiated.

Reading is essential in the complex, global society in which we live. It is important for personal, social and economic well-being. As literacy professionals, our goal is to teach students to become active, engaged readers, who succeed to their greatest potential.

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Lisa Morgan

Reading relies on strong speech and language skills”

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Lisa Morgan, speech and language therapist

Reading effectively for meaning and pleasure involves a complex range of skills, most of which rely on strong speech and language skills - using sounds to decode, knowing how words work together and understanding the vocabulary to gain meaning, for example. We know that children with good oral language skills are likely to become good readers.

In the UK, more than one million children have long-term and persistent speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). We know that these children are at greater risk of literacy difficulties.

Add to this the evidence that highlights that in areas of social disadvantage upwards of 50% of children are starting school with delayed language, then this raises key questions about ways to support children with SLCN to learn to read.

Lisa Morgan

  • Registered speech and language therapist
  • Professional director at Communication Trust, a coalition of voluntary organisations

For some children with SLCN, a phonic approach, within a context of focused language enrichment and opportunities, will work well to support their reading development. For others, it absolutely won't. For some, assessing their phonic skills in Year 1 through the phonics screen has been OK. For others, it absolutely hasn't.

Each child and young person with SLCN is different - their needs are different, their strengths are different and the ways in which they best learn are different too.

It is therefore essential that firstly teachers understand a child's SLCN and any implications for developing their literacy, and secondly that they are skilled and confident in choosing and using whatever works for that child in developing their reading skills.

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Siobhan Freegard

It's good to let children see adults reading too”

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Siobhan Freegard, parenting website Netmums

Reading regularly to children from an early age is important as they will learn to love stories and books.

Making reading part of the everyday routine, so children quickly pick up subtle skills such as which way to follow the print of a book, how to use pictures to help decode the words, and how to recognise initial letters and the most commonly used words.

It's good to let them see adults reading too, surrounding the home with books, magazines and newspapers, as children learn by copying adults. Parents can share the stories they are reading and any funny parts or interesting nuggets to spark their interest.

Siobhan Freegard

  • Founder of Netmums parenting website
  • Says parents can do a lot to encourage children to read - and to enjoy it

The other key building block to learning to read is rhymes and sounds. Singing or chanting poems and rhymes to children will help them to learn their favourites and decipher rhyming words and different sounds, all of which will help them with their phonics skills later on.

But apart from school books that need to be read, parents should not force books on their children and should let them read what they like - whether that is comics or football magazines - so they realise reading is fun.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I can remember being taught to read at school even though it was more than 50 years ago. Phonics and Look and Say were both used. Both are essential. Look and Say is much quicker but leads to more mistakes. Phonics are needed for unfamiliar words and for anyone starting to read.

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    Comment number 44.

    Everyone commenting ignores the real problem, our ridiculous spelling. Until the spelling is reformed our children will always be the only ones that have to learn to spell. Spelling could be gradually reformed to phonetic system over say 20 years using the same letters but removing double letters and idiotic legacies such as riGHt KNiGHt and Gnat. C can be S or K, why? we already have S and K?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I think Lisa Morgan makes an an important point. As a teacher in deprived areas, it's clear that many of the children come with delayed speech, as they have heard limited verbal language use before they arrive. I think we're making them run before they can walk. Lots of talk AND reading a little. A reintroduction of story time would also help as many do not associate reading with pleasure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    In any field of learning it is the combination of motivation and aptitude that sets just how much external (teaching) support is needed. There is no magic method for children with low motivation and low aptitude. The only solution is a fabulous teacher. So how do we attract and retain those fabulous teachers. Knowing who they are and giving sizable pay premium would be a good start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    English is very difficult to learn by phonics alone. Some spellings are notoriously outlandish. Recognition of whole words is necessary in some cases but some words build phonetically. Use both methods.
    BBC, please check the grammar of your headlines.
    'Girl shot by Taliban on way to UK' - was the girl on her way and shot,
    are the Taliban on their way?
    Standards are slipping everywhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The problem mainly stems from the fact parents don't do the 'reading homework' with their kids.
    Parents are busy, tired or uneducated themselves, kids are fly and uninterested, the end result is a 'reading diary' signed by the parents for homework that hasn't been done.

    School class sizes are also too big for a teacher to actually teach 1-2-1 & rectify problems early when they are identified.

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    Comment number 39.

    12. ToryBasher
    Reading is from an era when things like TV and interactive digital media didn't exist, it is less important in the modern age. Better to focus on science and maths instead of language, which ultimately isn't going make a difference to the state of our economy or our nation's future.

    LOL!!!!! Better focus on science and maths - but no reading!!!
    Bet the Tories are quaking….

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    No one method does for all children and all words- you need a combination, and the teacher, trained for the job and knowing the individual children, working with the parents, should be the best person to decide the balance in school, not politicians. One size does NOT fit all.
    Let the teachers teach, Mr Gove!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    My son could read before he went to school but had the approved method rammed down his throat which put him off and he regressed. Fortunately along came Harry Potter and he soon caught up using his own methods. Learning to read involves many skills and no one method suites all, which is why concentrating on one such as phonics is wrong but when poltics enters the room reason vacates the premises

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Why don't we just change to a strict phonetic spelling system. Very difficult for us adults to adapt to, obviously,but it would make learning to read and spell so much easier for children, and it would dispose of these endless debates between experts, which are really just about how to best overcame the obstacles presented by our antique spelling system. Remove the obstacles instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I can't read and I can't write but I can drive a traaaaaaactor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    It doesn't say much for the quality of English teaching if a head teacher uses the phrase "over-exaggerated".

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Our child learned to read by traditional methods, flash cards and basic word shape recognition. When he was ready he went from non reader to competency in about 4 weeks. Unfortunately he then fell into the phonics regime when he started school. He is now in the bizarre situation of being able to read to adult level but spells phonically, which basically means he cannot spell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    My daughters are in years one and two currently, the phonics test last year was interesting but I have to question what it really proved. Both of them read well and our school uses a reading scheme started in the 1960s (the same I learned with) which offers a mixture of look & say with phonics. I think the partnership between school and parents is the key ... as it is for all learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    My teachers had silly ideas about reading and I wasted my time trying to convince them that it could read. Had taught myself at the age of six how to read by working through the Bible with my aunt. Vivid imagery, the strangeness and mystery of the language there, inspired me to expand my sources. Too much effort today in simplifying and reducing extraordinary language into everyday banality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    The first 2 years at school (reception/year 1) are key to establishing a child's enjoyment of reading & books (& education generally). Get is wrong, the child is turned off for life.
    There may be more than one way to teach a child to read but phonics is most definitely NOT one of them. I am aware children in my local school groan and their faces droop when it's time for (boring) phonic learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    (just spotted the typo in my last post!) A question though...with all these new strategies for teaching children to read involving new ways of teaching, how do experts propose to teach parents to assist their children when they don't have much experience of these techniques themselves? I'm not a parent, but if I were would only be able to teach in the way I was taught.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    My stepson (age 8) found it quite hard to 'get into' reading and it was always a challenge to get him to read anything. I kept trying and eventually discovered that non-fiction was interesting for him and he became more enthusiastic. It's taken a lot of time and effort but he is now reading happily for leisure and to himself at bedtime. I would also like to say 'hooray' for Horrid Henry!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I imagine how I learned to read. By parents reading with the kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    @12 Torybasher. So you don't read reports, emails, news, research results, statements, contracts, deeds in your line of work? That's brilliant. If you're a scientist and you invent or discover something that will benefit the economy AND make millions then please get in touch with me; I have a document for you to read and sign..........


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